On pure experience

In an assignment I wrote recently on psychedelic experience and education, I cited Huxley’s (1954, p47) call for us to learn ‘to look at the world directly’ rather than through the ‘half-opaque medium of concepts’, and also Watts’ (1971) warning not to ‘confuse that system of symbols [language, calculation], with the world itself’.

A friend/colleague very generously provided me with some comments (after I’d submitted it), and I am really enjoying exploring his suggestions. Against the above, he wrote the following:

‘You’ll know that John McDowell argues that it is impossible to look at the world directly, if by that you mean to have unconceptualised experiences. See his Mind and World. He bases his argument on Sellar’s idea of the ‘Myth of the Given’.

I didn’t know of John McDowell, and I haven’t got myself a copy of Mind and World (yet), but I did come across a really nice review by Wayne Christensen of a book by Joseph K Schear on ‘The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate’. While McDowell argues that everything we perceive is pervaded by conceptualisation – a view I didn’t think I agreed with at all – at least his definition of conceptual understanding is not restricted to that which can be coded in language. Christensen cites the example of an individual who perceives a shade of colour for which there is no name, but can retain the experience in memory and refer to it in their mental processes. This is a rather simple example, compared to some things I’ve perceived that couldn’t possibly be recounted, and also, annoyingly, evade capture by the memory (I may only recall, for example, that I perceived something of great significance while fetching a teabag from the cupboard above the kettle, and it was wonderful and reassuring and I wanted so badly to write it down but I couldn’t). The example of the nameless colour brings to mind Philip K Dick’s ‘pink light’ in Valis. It also reminds me of an embarrassing moment I had one Christmas with a boyfriend’s family; being asked to describe a china tea set to his sister, who had been blind since birth. How should I explain ‘gold’? or ‘green?’ Should I even try? Since then, I’ve googled ‘how to describe a colour to a blind person’ and realised that she was probably testing me. Ha.

I came across Hubert Dreyfus and his five stages of expertise before when I was writing a book review of Transformative Learning & Identity. I recall liking his suggestion that the most proficient, most expert practitioners actually think less about what they are doing, not more. It seemed to counter Schön’s dogma of the reflective practitioner, which I’d found irritating. It does depend on what one means by ‘thinking’ though – as Wittgenstein noted, there are many different kinds of thought. I’m willing to bet that there is plenty of brain activity involved in what Dreyfus called ‘absorbed coping’. Charles Limb’s brain scanning of musical improv artists may be a case in point (although I don’t know for certain if his research subjects would have claimed a lack of conscious awareness of what they were doing). If the brain *is* indeed highly active during the highest levels of competent practice, can we claim it to be non-cognitive? Perhaps it is sometimes the case that the more expert we are, the less we are aware of our thinking, hmm? Christensen argues that our conceptual self-awareness is often inaccurate, citing a study that found professional batsmen do not, in fact, keep their eye on the ball (as they thought they were doing).

I looked up Barbara Montero after reading Christensen’s review and I love her perspective. She has digested a lot of thinking from across the disciplines about cognitive activity and expert performance, and built a strong case that expert action can be ‘richly minded’. A ballerina herself, she argues that ‘autopilot’ performances are dull for both the dancer and the audience. It makes sense to me that different kinds of skills demand or benefit from different kinds and degrees of absorption when performed at an elite level, and that this may even vary significantly between individuals. There is more than one method of skinning a cat, and there is more than one method for producing a note-perfect performance of Chopin’s Waltz in A minor.

The awareness and conceptualisation of thought is such an interesting topic; its study has been shown to benefit from interdisciplinary approaches including phenomenology, neuroimaging, eye movement tracking, etc. These same approaches have been utilised in the study of psychedelic experience. Both areas of research flirt with the boundaries of what can be articulated, and that is what is so intriguing and exciting about them.

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